Yelp, Google Reviews, and Antitrust
David: Hey, Mike. Hope you had a great Labor Day weekend. After a terribly hot and smoky August, it was especially nice to enjoy some time outside in the Northwest!
Mike: Well, we got at least the “hot” part of that here… with warnings for the next few days. Almost looking forward to the cooler days of fall!
Mike: You mean the one where he defended his illogical position vis-à-vis Google reviews not being in the index? (It was based on this article: Google might be hiding the fact that its own reviews are shoddy.)
David: That’s the one. For some reason, Yelp feels that Google’s choice not to index its reviews is an attempt to cover up an inferior product.
I’m not clear why Google would choose not to index its reviews—potentially to avoid additional regulatory scrutiny…potentially to prevent scrapers?
Whatever the reasoning behind Google’s decision, the reality is that Google including its reviews in local search results would only strengthen its monopoly position.
For a company whose own market share was significantly built on its strength in organic search, Yelp executives seem staggeringly unaware of the central importance of domain authority in organic rankings.
Mike: For me, the more likely reason is that Google has chosen to store reviews in the Knowledge Graph and keep track of them as associated with entities rather than via their traditional index. That has nothing to with quality of the reviews and everything to do with the relationship amongst entities and information about those entities.
Google does not let us see which Yelp reviews are associated with a given entity (per Yelp’s request).
David: Which I pointed out on Twitter. Luther’s response was that the clickthrough rate was too low to justify their inclusion.
And yet Yelp continues to happily provide reviews to Bing, DuckDuckGo, and other companies which provide Knowledge Panel-like results. I can’t imagine the clickthrough rate from those results is any higher than what they’d receive from Google.
I’ve yet to see any meaningful data showing that consumers prefer 10 Blue Links to the 3-pack/Knowledge Graph results that are now ubiquitous in Local Search. Even Yelp’s Focus on the User project maintains the 3-pack as a UI paradigm. So it’s unclear how Google swapping out its own reviews for others would have any meaningful impact on any third party’s traffic from the SERPs.
Mike: Google, in “bundling reviews” with the Knowledge Panel, is attempting to provide a one-stop shop for consumers. That may or may not be anticompetitive but not because the reviews are not shown in the index.
Mike: The fact that they used to be indexed with Google Plus profiles is more an artifact of the historical mistakes Google made in trying to get Google Plus off the ground. The fact that they are no longer stored there makes all kinds of sense from the consumer point of view.
To argue that it’s due to the quality of the reviews with no substantiation is just lazy writing.
David: Right. If Google were going to launch a bonafide reviews portal designed for organic search performance, it would clearly live at google.com/local or google.com/reviews.
What’s that old personal injury law disclaimer? “Past performance does not imply future success”—or in this case, past failure does not imply future failure.
Mike: It strikes me at this point that Yelp would argue any position which shows Google in a bad light regardless of the logic. It wasn’t that long ago that Yelp was arguing that showing Google results in the 10 blue links was anticompetitive. They seem to want it both ways.
David: Ironically, Luther and I are in conceptual alignment on what I presume to be his endgame—oversight of Google in the local search arena—but seemingly 180 degrees from each other on the remedy or rationale for that oversight.
Mike: So yours (and presumably Yelp’s) argument is that the local ecosystem is being harmed and that Google should be regulated to create a more varied local ecosystem?
It must be, as you point out, as it is hard to argue that the consumer is harmed by seeing Google’s hefty body of reviews.
David: Essentially, yes. It’s unclear that consumers are really being harmed—at least yet. It’s other technology companies (like Yelp and TripAdvisor) and small businesses that are bearing the brunt of Google’s market position.
I’m not as concerned with the health of the “ecosystem,” though—a healthier technology ecosystem would simply be a happy byproduct of regulation.
The key for me lies in a concept you and I have talked about before in the context of “fake news”: business harm as a new rationale for oversight.
Mike: Well it could be argued that business harm comes in multiple forms as far as Google is concerned. It is seen as you point out when bad information is surfaced but also potentially in the lack of innovative solutions in an increasingly non-diverse local space. Yelp seems to waffle between arguing that consumers are hurt by Google reviews showing in the results, by arguing sometimes that Google is hiding reviews because they are not up to snuff (as in this case), and that Google is limiting innovation.
Yelp should figure out a consistent position, stick to one that is the least self-serving (which is hard) and then highlight well-researched articles that logically reinforce its position.
It would seem that the logical conclusion of that position would be a government intervention to split Google Maps and local listings away from Google and make it a standalone entity. But I don’t recall Yelp going there, even if it is what they think.
David: That’s essentially the conclusion I reached as well. Forcing a standalone “geo” unit would foster a more diverse technology ecosystem.
This would mitigate the percentage/number of consumers who see bad results, in an environment where Google is no longer the “New Homepage.”
This seems like a much better option than a more heavy-handed regulation of Google’s algorithm and UI—which is a very slippery slope in my opinion.
But regulators should not be convinced by an irrational argument that indexation of Google reviews has any bearing on the harm created for, or benefit gained by, consumers.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.